St. Patrick’s Day.
I love it. The whole schtick. I’m sorry, I just can’t help it.
Being Irish on St Patrick’s day is the best thing in the world; it’s like a Leprechaun hanging up a drunk Santa and then beating him like a piñata until all the presents fall out. It’s that tipsy-topsy-turvy day when the world seems full of vicarious Paddies.
But one thing is certain: your experience of Paddywhackery will be culture-specific. A London-Irish St Patrick’s Day for example, will be a different beast entirely to the New York variety of shamrock-drowning. Of course there are similarities: the parade, the pipe bands, the wearing of the green, the sinking of the black (that’s drinking pints of Guinness to the uninitiated).
You get something else in London. Apart from being locked in an historical danse macabre that has lasted more than 800 years, the two nations (Ireland and England) share a passion for sporting events that borders on the eccentric and there’s always a busy Spring calendar.
St Patrick’s Day this year sees the Irish ruby team coming to Twickenham Stadium (the home of English rugby) to play for the pride of their island in the Six Nations competition. But it’s in horse-racing that the Irish are always to be taken really seriously; whether it’s trainers, breeders, beasts or jockeys.
At no time is this more apparent than in the week before St Patrick’s Day when thousands of racing fans descend on the Gloucestershire spa town of Cheltenham in Merry England’s West Country for a racing festival that the Irish have very much made their own.
The festival often marks the unofficial start of St Patrick’s Day festivities in the UK. ‘Having a flutter on the gee-gees’ (betting on a horse) for the Cheltenham Gold Cup manages to be as Irish as Skibbereen and yet still as English as cider with Rosie.
But does this annual outbreak of soggy patriotism come from a hooky sentimental ‘far-from-hearth-and-home’ cawboguery? Some of it, sure and what’s wrong with that? If the Irish at home are embarrassed by the excesses of emigrant and diasporic Paddywhackery, I’m sure – as the money from the next generation of leavers starts to roll in again – they’ll find it in their hearts to indulge us in this one day of exuberance.
Of course, there will always be cynics out there who don’t buy in to Irish blarney or bonhomie. Recruiters like the gentleman from Australia who sparked a minor diplomatic incident after posting a request for bricklayers with an old school NINA (No Irish Need Apply) proviso; it could have been a story from the 19th century except for the fact that notice board used by the recruiter was the online market Gumtree .
Or maybe the boo-boys come in the form of our London Mare (pardon me, Mayor; what with Cheltenham and News International’s former executive Rebekah Brooks and the nag loaned to her by the Metropolitan Police, the ‘gee-gees’ have been on my mind a lot these past few days). Boris Johnson, the man charged with running London is, to be charitable, rather gaffe-prone. The ‘Johnson’ we installed in City Hall (and I use the term advisedly) has been roundly condemned by the Irish community for a quote attributed to him whereby he is understood to have intimated that St Patrick’s Day celebrations in London were ‘lefty crap’.
Historically in any event, the Irish community in London has never really been very fertile ground for the Conservatives. The Irish were usually on the side of labour and the left; it was an Irish Fenian who wrote The Red Flag and Irish labourers sided with the Jews and the Communists against Moseley’s Blackshirts in the Battle of Cable Street. What we gave to the Tories was their name; taken from the Island pirates of the Donegal coast.
So I pay no mind to the detractors, or ‘Fuck the begrudgers’ (as they say in the ‘old country’; I’m now so long gone that I can officially call it that). Let them have their sour say because this week, the Niagra Falls, the Empire State and the Leaning Tower of Pisa are all lit-up green; from Obama and Ali to Guevara and De Niro, the Irish are everywhere.
The Irish Mexican connection for example doesn’t begin with Anthony Quinn nor end with the Northerner’s nickname for the ‘Free State’ south of the border. When I found out Zorro was purportedly inspired by an Irish Mexican rebel called William Lamport, it only cemented my deep rooted conviction that absolutely everyone is Irish, they either just don’t know it yet (or they are in denial about it).
But if I’m honest, I’m also guilty of a bit of chauvinistic needling. I must confess to sometimes taking more pleasure than is modest from informing English people that the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons was an imprisoned member of Sinn Féin or that Amnesty International’s co-founder had been chief of staff in the IRA or even that a Fenian designed the submarine and a Mayo man invented the torpedo.
From figures as unlikely as Hitchcock the film director or the Chartist O’Connor, the Irish impact on British cultural life is immense and largely uncharted and unacknowledged. And let’s not forget Irish soldiering. Wellington, Kitchener and Montgomery all had Irish heritage (even if they weren’t given to advertising it).
In Ireland, the relationship with England casts a long historical shadow and perhaps because of this, it always amazes us how little people in Britain seem to understand of their closest neighbouring nation. Maybe (and I’m guessing this might annoy Boris) we should be agitating for a recognised Irish History Month here in London; to follow the example of the Irish community in Leeds or our Black brothers and sisters who celebrate Black history in October and the Gypsy Roma Traveller community in June.
We Irish are perennially aware the effects of Norman and then English intervention on our culture but make no mistake, that traffic went two ways and consequently, one rarely has to dig too deep to find some Irish connection. Whether by commerce, marriage or soldiery; Irishness is never too far away in Britain, even if sometimes its invisibility is a product of our near ubiquity.
And that ubiquity persists from the bottom of the class ladder right to the very top. This country’s current Chancellor of the Exchequer for example is heir to the Irish Baronetcy of Ballentaylor in County Tipperary. And recently, the veracity of this Hibernium Ubique premise was keenly underlined when a friend drew my attention to the lineage of the British Prime Minister David Cameron whose ancestry boasts an Irish actress and courtesan in the form of William IV’s mistress Dorothea Jordan.
So Britain, rejoice and embrace your inner Leprechaun. Don’t be ashamed to admit that your nanna ran away with a navvy or that your Granddad fell for an Irish serving girl. Irishness is not the social stigma you thought it was. In fact, it’s practically a prerequisite of establishment power: after all, your very posh Chancellor is an Irish Baronet and your old Etonian Premier is descended from a Waterford strumpet.